South African sounds break into int'l playlists

The diverse South African music industry is still probably best-known for lending Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Paul Simon in the eighties, but at January’s Midem music confab, the tip of Africa showcased how far it’s come.South Africa was as the country of honor at Midem, held in Cannes, France. “Music is the golden thread that holds South African society together,” says Lulama Xingwana, South Africa’s minister of Arts and Culture. “I am happy that the Midem platform (brought) South Africa’s musical heritage to the world.”

CAPE TOWN, South Africa

With international bands like Vampire Weekend and the Very Best mining Afrobeat influences, and African acts like K’Naan and Amadou and Miriam ranking at the top of critics’ lists, there’s a sense that the continent’s soundtrack is about to go global. With the 2010 World Cup bringing the world’s attention to South Africa in June, the local industry is infectiously optimistic.

“There are loads of new bands cropping up in South Africa. It’s a very exciting time,” says Arno Carstens, whose upcoming album on Sony Music U.K., “Wonderful Wild,” was produced by Youth (The Verve’s “Urban Hymns”) and Jim Duguid (Paulo Nutini’s “These Streets”). Carstens was scouted by John Giddings, Celine Dion’s agent, after Giddings saw one of his shows while in South Africa.

He’s not the only South African breaking out internationally. Last year, the Soweto Gospel Choir won the Grammy for “Down to Earth,” their “Wall-E” “duet” with Peter Gabriel; song was also nominated for an Oscar, and the group performed on the kudocast with John Legend. This was the traditional world music group’s third Grammy and fourth Grammy nomination in three years. Since rising to fame with their appearance at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 concert in Cape Town 2003, which also featured Gabriel, Bono, Queen, Anastacia and the Eurythmics, they’ve recorded with the likes of Robert Plant, Josh Groban, Akon and Keri Hilson.

South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela appeared on two Grammy-nominated recordings: Bela Fleck’s double-winner “Throw Down Your Heart,” and on “Nelson Mandela’s Favourite African Folktalkes,” which was nommed in the spoken word album for children category. Vusi, known locally as “The Voice,” came to the world’s attention in the Emmy-winning “Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony,” which explored the way music shaped the struggle against Apartheid. Since that film, he’s signed to ATO Records and recorded with the Dave Matthews Band, Jem and Josh Groban, among others.

While much South African music sounds distinctly international, last year’s hit film, “District 9,” introduced the world to kwaito, South Africa’s unique hip hop-inspired dance music phenomenon; the high-energy sounds of Zola and Zulu Mobb were a perfect fit for third-world science fiction.

South African bands are appearing more and more regularly on the soundtracks to international TV shows. Farryl Purkiss’s mellow “Sticks and Stones” was featured in season three of “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Private Practice,” while Lira’s Afro-soul hit, “Feel Good,” appeared on the soundtrack for “Girlfriends,” and on Canadian sitcom “The Kink in My Hair.” Just Jinger had “She Knows” featured on “Cougar Town,” while Busi Mhlongo’s world music was on “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.” Yoav’s “Adore Adore” appeared in “The Mentalist” and “One Tree Hill,” which has also featured “Rock.Paper.Scissors,” by pop rock band the Parlotones and Civil Twilight’s “Letters from the Sky” and “Quiet in my Town.”

Since relocating to the States, Civil Twilight have probably become the most licensed South African band so far. Sounding like a cross between Coldplay and Radiohead, their songs have appeared on shows like “House MD,” “Without a Trace,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” and “Harper’s Island.”

Seether, their label-mates at Wind-up Records, are probably more widely known, having sold more than five million albums worldwide since moving to the States. Their post grunge song “Broken,” a duet with Evanescence’s Amy Lee, and “Sold Me,” were featured on the 2004 film, “The Punisher,” while “No Shelter” was featured on the “NCIS” soundtrack in early 2009.

But the most hyped South African band to watch at the moment is Blk Jks, who have been labeled “the African TV on the Radio” by Diplo (who met the band by chance while touring South Africa) and praised by “Rolling Stone” for sounding “like no one else.” Their debut album, “After Robots,” released by Secretly Canadian and produced by The Secret Machines’ Brandon Curtis, featured in numerous end-of-year polls of the top albums of 2009.

Like Carstens, South Africans are increasingly hooking up with international producers. After becoming one of the first South African bands to perform at South by Southwest (SXSW) when they were known as Harris Tweed, Dear Reader turned to Menomena’s Brent Knopf to produce their first album on City Slang, “Replace Why With Funny.” Lead singer Cheri MacNeil explains how she’d first heard Menomena while on tour in Europe. “The place was packed with people singing along to the strangest music I had ever heard. After that I listened to their album every single day solidly for three months, so when we were looking for a producer I sent a Myspace message to the Menomena guys, something along the lines of, ‘I think you guys are geniuses and I love your music and is there any way you’d consider coming out to South Africa to produce our new record?’ and they replied! I was jumping around and screaming like a banshee.” In turn, Dear Reader band members featured on Knopf’s Ramona Falls side project.

Similarly, local hip hop sensation Jozi are recording with six-time Grammy winner Gordon “The Commissioner” Williams (“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”) on his new label, Muthaland, a joint venture with South African label Ghetto Ruff.

With the FIFA Soccer World Cup putting the spotlight firmly on South African culture in June this year, expect to hear more of all these artists, not to mention the likes of electro-jazz duo Goldfish, who are in their third year of a residency at super club Pacha Ibiza; rockers Prime Circle and Zebra and Giraffe; Freshlyground’s Afropop; the retro electro hip hop of 19-year-old twin Charlie Chaplin descendants, Locnville; and Grammy nominees Johnny Clegg and Jonathan Butler.

Moshito, the biggest music market in Africa, takeS place from Sept. 8-10 this year in Johannesburg for industryites looking for new sounds.

“As we export our music, it’s just as important to have a place where the international market can come on home soil to taste our African music products,” says Andre le Roux, the general manager of the South African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO). The annual event has grown over the past six years to include live showcases, a full conference program, and a growing exhibition.

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